Spelling Tips: Ligatures and When to Use Them
  • 2-minute read
  • 21st February 2020

Spelling Tips: Ligatures and When to Use Them

There’s a good chance you’ve seen ligatures, especially in older documents or in writing that mimics an “olde-worlde” style. But what exactly are they? And do you ever need them in your writing? Let’s take a look.

What Are Ligatures?

The word “ligature” simply means “something that ties, binds or connects.” In medicine, for instance, a ligature is a thread used to bind a blood vessel or another hollow structure. In writing, though, a ligature is a character that combines two letters. The most common are “æ” (ae) and “œ” (oe), which you may have seen in words like “encyclopædia” or “amœba.”

Ligatures were used to show that words came from Latin or Greek. However, this is quite old-fashioned. In American English, we now either:

  • Use separate letters (e.g., amoeba)
  • Drop one of the letters from the ligature (e.g., encyclopedia)

The only common ligature in modern English is the ampersand (&), which started as a mix of the letters “e” and “t” (the Latin word “et,” meaning “and”).

Do I Need to Use Them in My Writing?

The short answer is “no.” Ligatures are very rare these days, as any word that can be written with a ligature can also be written without one. And skipping the ligature is almost always simpler!

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There are two exceptions to this, though:

  1. You want to use a ligature for stylistic reasons.
  2. You are using a style guide that recommends using ligatures.

For instance, while the Chicago Manual of Style recommends using the modern spellings for words borrowed from Latin, it does suggest using ligatures for Old English and Old French. Thus, if you were following the CMoS guidelines and writing about King Alfred, you would write Ælfred instead. This is to keep the modern version closer to the original spelling.

On the stylistic front, this is a simple matter of preference. Just keep in mind that it may look old-fashioned! And if you need someone to check your writing is error free, we’re always happy to help.

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